Thursday, 15 November 2018

Hiatus; Or, Becoming Jaded; Or, Toys, Pram, Thrown

I am taking a hiatus from the blog and all online discussion of RPGs. There are a couple of reasons.

First, I think I am becoming jaded. When I look around, what I mostly see are people with products to sell, most of which I think are over-priced, focused on style over substance, and not particularly interesting. I can't tell if this is accurate or because I am losing my enthusiasm. Probably it is a bit of both. Either way, it's a good reason to take a step away from things for a while.

Second, I am basically sick to death of the culture war bullshit surrounding the scene lately - which has raised its brainless boring head once again. As somebody broadly in the political centre I look to one side and see nothing but sanctimonious, judgmental pricks and on the other side nothing but childish mud-flinging philistines, and it increasingly feels like being stuck in the middle of a primary school playground. There is nothing for a sane person to do but say "A pox on both your houses!" and disengage. You're all wankers: you know who you are.

Third, my proper career is moving to the next level and I have family commitments which result in less and less time for thinking about RPGs. I am still keen on creating. I have less juice for it. I need to take a break to see if it is rejuvenating.

Don't view this as a melodramatic move or a cry for help. I think a big part of the reason why I am losing patience with this whole thing is because things are going well elsewhere and I can see less and less value in being part of the silliness of what the OSR thing has become. Let me put it bluntly: I can't give a flying fuck whether Writer X wants to work with Publisher Y because of Reason Z or not. I have better things to do. Get over yourselves. You're not important.

I will resume posting if and when I feel like I miss it. I hope most people reading this entry will not feel too alienated by it; sorry.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Night Hagdoms of the Calf Plateau

On the bare galeswept hump of the plateau, nothing can grow except for the most rudimentary life: lichens fed by starlight which achingly spread across the rock, inch by inch, century by century; fungal growths which grope their way over the surface, laying completely flat as though ducked down against the wind. But the surface is riven with deep ravine-like networks of cracks and chasms, gouged into the landscape by earthquakes and tremors, and those places are thick with life, scrabbling around in the utter blackness of permanent night where not even moon- or starlight penetrates. The reason is simple: guano. The bats which lair on the Calf in their millions are constantly producing nutritious effluent which flows in streams - sometimes rivers - of rain that gradually collect in these networks of cracks and flow downhill to the sea. All this waste produces enough food for entire ecosystems to be sustained.

Much of this life is the most base and unthinking kind: giant lice sucking on effluent and the giant centipedes and axlotls which feed on them; myriad types of nameless clawed arthropod things whose origins could only be guessed at if even they were known to the outside world. But there are societies there too: in those pitch black chasms, radiating across the plateau like old tangled cobwebs, are night hag triarchies, each ruled by a coven of three sisters, living off food their minions catch or grow for them, and permanently jostling for prominence against their rivals. There is no use speculating where these night hags came from: probably they are instantiations of the night itself, as though its sheer permanence in the seas of Nox Aestiva had to give effect to personifications such as them. Their slaves are the descendants of the rare travelers who have visited the Calf over the eons and become trapped; most of them ruined by inbreeding but adapted to life in the endless night with almost supernaturally elevated senses of smell, touch or hearing - and without the unnecessary encumbrance of eyes. These slaves in many cases now number in the thousands after generations of breeding across the eons, and have built entire towns by burrowing caves into the walls of their ravine homes. They war, trade, spy and conspire with and against one another with an intensity that is precisely converse to its import: the rest of the Fixed World has no idea they even exist, save for the aboleths who lair in the reefs off the coast and the tiny number of sailors who visit the island. 

To generate a night hag triarachy, roll on the following table. Descriptions of Assets and Issues are found below.

Minion type
Assets (d3)
Jermalaines – originally stowaways on a wrecked ship blown off course
Humans – originally pirates or traders on a wrecked ship blown off course
Magical lichen
Toxic gases
Derro – who originally burrowed up from some ancient now-collapsed labyrinth leading to the underdark
Mineral seam
Halflings – originally seal hunters from Mane Hiemalis carried on the back of an iceberg
Aboleth alliance
Slave uprising
Githyanki – originally pirates carried on the back of a zaratan which died nearby
Ochre jelly spawning site
Rival agents
Grippli, tasloi or lizardmen  – who were trapped on a giant tree which was blown into the sea in Meridiem Aestivus and carried to the Calf across the ocean
“Pet” galeb duhr
Monbat predators
Urds – who were flying in Mane Hiemalis and blown off course by a storm, to land on the Calf for respite
Magma pool
Tenebrous worm nest
Pech – who accidentally came through a temporary portal from the Plane of Earth and were stranded when it closed
Umber hulk breeding pit
Phase spider attacks
*Minions have their ordinary abilities. Unless they have innate infravision, they are now blind and rely on their other senses, and have accordingly outsized noses, ears and hands. This allows them to "see" in the dark, albeit at -2 to rolls requiring quick reactions (including "to hit" rolls).

When generating a triarchy, place the following adventure sites and generate further details using the relevant sub-tables:

1 - Night hunter lair
2 - Abandoned settlement
3 - Powerful exile/hermit
4 - Genie pilgrimage site
5 - Mephits
6 - Lava tube network

[Something incomplete I am working on.]

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Modern D&D Venn Diagram

D&D really is a thing again. A colleague of mine - a woman, 26, good-looking, reasonably "cool" or whatever word the kids are using these days - announced over lunch today to a group of us that she had recently switched from playing Settlers of Cataan with her boyfriend and mates to D&D. And she was loving it.

Never has a generational divide been more in evident. Everybody else around the table - 35+, professional, sensible, successful - cringed (except for me: I did my level best to be nonchalant). To them, D&D screams NERD if it screams anything at all. To somebody who is 26, D&D somehow manages to scream NERD, BUT THAT'S OK BECAUSE IT'S COOL TO BE A NERD NOW, SO HURRY UP AND ROLL UP A CHARACTER AND LET'S GET SOME CRAFT IPA AND E-CIGARETTES AND WAX OUR MOUSTACHES.

What interests me is not that D&D is reviving in popularity - it undoubtedly is (even the BBC is onto it). It's that it is popular in a totally different way to how it was in the past. I was not old enough to be playing D&D during the boom years of the late 70s and early 80s. But I am pretty sure even at the height of its popularity in those days that it was not being played by professional 26 year old women with robust social lives. Things have changed. The opening paragraph of the BBC article in the above link puts it down in part to "nostalgia". I don't buy it. My colleague ain't nostalgic - she probably wouldn't have had a clue what D&D even was 3 or 4 years ago. She's enjoying the game for what it is.

The real "meat" of the story is the fact that people are meeting up to play D&D at BrewDog pubs now. For those outside the UK, BrewDog was one of the first hipster craft beer companies to really get successful about 10 years ago: it has always billed itself as a "punk" brewer and branded itself as being a kind of market rebel (it probably tells you all you need to know that one of its lines is called Tactical Nuclear Penguin (insert eye-roll smiley here) and is 32% ABV). In the year 2007, it would have been about as far away from D&D as you can get. But in 2018, BrewDog is so D&D. It is almost painfully D&D. It is craft beer, it is guys riding around on old bicycles, it is ironic tattoos, it is veganism, it is gluten-free brownies, it is vintage plaid/checked shirts, it is taxidermy, it is urban beekeeping, it is bookbinding, it is shops and bars built inside cargo containers, it is Urban fucking Outfitters. Whether due to some work of marketing genius on the part of WotC, or (more likely) due to sheer accident, D&D has nestled in alongside those other pursuits perfectly - the paradigmatic post-ironic so-uncool-it's-cool pastime that exists outside of trainspotting and lawn bowls. Draw a Venn diagram of all those activities and somehow find some way to fit them all together and D&D could be right there in the middle.

Is this a bad thing? Yes and no. I am glad that lots of people like D&D, because I like D&D and can see its great virtues in a world full of anxious people alienated from each other by the siren-song of fake technological connectivity and emancipation. At the same time, though, there is a part of me that cannot help finding every element in that Venn diagram profoundly irritating, and is horrified at the prospect of D&D becoming tarred with that particular brush.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Pied Piper of Syr Darya

I lie here on the couch watching football. I am infected by norovirus and feel about as bad as I can ever remember feeling. I can't eat, drink, move, or sleep. But what I can do, goddamit, is blog. "I blogged didn't I? At least I did that." Put that on my tombstone.

Feverish dreams gave me an idea: some renditions of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story end with the Mayor (who, you may remember, asked the Piper to get rid of the rats but then refused to pay, causing the Piper to disappear with all the town's children in a fit of pique) going off to search for the missing children - and he is often described as "still looking for them now". A bleak ending - in the book version my daughter likes, the Mayor is even depicted on the final page as an impossibly old man wandering through empty mountain passes in a perpetual and fruitless search.

So, I wonder - what if the Mayor's wanderings lead him to Yoon-Suin? That would make a great novel idea. He never finds the children. But he finds other things instead.

Other ideas for Yoon-Suin/real world crossover novels:

-Spanish or Portuguese conquistadores discover the Yellow City; Europeans are ravaged by horrible diseases
-An account of the British Purple Land Company setting off on voyages through oceanic wormhole things that open in the Gulf of Morays
-An account of the lost tribe of Israel wandering into Sughd from the West
-First contact with a trading vessel from  a Yellow City Noble House sailing up the Thames/Mersey circa 1800

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Remaining Soldiers

There is a popular history book waiting to be written about the role that disbanded military units have played in historical events: young men once gainfully employed who suddenly have nothing to do and who are trained in and accustomed to extreme violence can cause all kinds of mischief; multiply this by the tens of thousand or hundreds of thousand and suddenly they become societal problems - even global problems - in their own right. You could almost say that the demobbing of the German and Russian armies at the close of WWI was a significant cause all on its own of all the mayhem that followed; you could also spin the final conquest of the American West as partly the mere consequence of the unleashing of lots of demobbed soldiers at the end of a long and brutal war. A much more modern example is the sudden dissolution of the Iraqi army during de-Ba'athification in 2003-2004, which is said to have been supplied much of the fuel for the insurgency that followed and was also clearly a significant factor in the rise of Islamic State.

(I have a feeling I may have written a blog post on this subject before, but if I have, I don't remember where.)

On a smaller scale, Japanese "remainers" in Indochina played a key role in training the Viet Minh after WWII in their war against the French, and hence subsequently against the Americans; in a strange historical twist, a lot of the French Foreign Legionnaires in that conflict were also actually German mercenaries fresh from the war in Europe. Japanese troops who had previously been stationed in China also played a prominent role as mercenaries in the Chinese civil war in the 1945-1949 period, and let's not forget, of course, Xenophon and the march of the 10,000 - which is basically a story about a disbanded military force, and which supposedly inspired Alexander in his conquest of Persia.

The idea of ex-soldiers stranded far from home has been used before, in Twilight: 2000, but works equally well for fantasy games. Why are the PCs in Yoon-Suin, or Tsolyanu, or Sigil, or wherever else your campaign begins? Well, maybe they happened to be there fighting a war and the war's over. What could be more a more natural next step than for them to begin looking around for other opportunities for wealth and glory?

Friday, 26 October 2018

And Now She's Got Helicopters...

And Hosaka's helicopter is back, no lights at all, hunting on infrared, feeling for body heat. A muffled whine as it turns, a kilometer away, swinging back toward us, toward New Rose. Too fast a shadow, against the glow of Narita.
-William Gibson, "New Rose Hotel" 
It struck me today, as two unidentified helicopters hovered fairly low, in close proximity, over my neighbourhood, that you don't get a much more cyberpunk technology than the chopper.

Helicopters are about great inequality: inequality of military power (the Huey in Vietnam, the Hind in Afghanistan), inequality of wealth (the super-rich sky commuters in Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Mumbai, heading for their weekend haunts through the crowded sky on a Friday evening), and even at some level sheer inequality of physical geography (I can see you, and I am above you; you don't get much more of an unequal relationship than that).

Helicopters are about surveillance. From up there, they can see everything below. And it ain't hidden. You don't spy on somebody by helicopter. You openly watch them. You tell them: I have you in my sights, so watch out.

Helicopters are about intimidation. They are loud, powerful, and almost omnipotent when they are in the sky. They can move at will. Something about them makes you freeze, and look up. They make you feel like an Amazonian tribesman confronting the awesome force of modern technology for the first time.

Helicopters are about assassination, abduction, and carefully deployed force at a personal level. Helicopters don't drop nuclear bombs. They carry Navy SEALS teams to covertly kill Osama Bin Laden.

The internet and cyberware might be the technologies we think of when we think of cyberpunk. For me the chopper trumps them.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Yoon-Suin Community Continuity

There is a relatively good Yoon-Suin community page on G+ which, aside from the blog, is the main place for discussing the setting online. There is lots of interesting stuff there. Clearly, that page will have to disappear when G+ goes away. I am currently considering options for replacements.

Please let me know in the comments to this entry (or on the post on G+ - I will cross-post this to the Yoon-Suin community page there) what your preferred option is:

a) A discussion forum on the Noisms Games website (yes, this exists!)
b) A subreddit, if this can be arranged
c) Something on MeWe (I don't have a MeWe account yet, but it seems to be where a lot of G+ exiles are heading)
d) Some other better option I've not thought of (and tell me what that is and why it's good!)

Please don't recommend anything to do with Facebook or Twitter; I don't use them and dont intend to start.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Four Forge Spells

A cold evening in late October, with the wet wind washing against the windows and the dead leaves rattling in the street outside. Thoughts turn to the Forge. Here are some spells for you, just for fun:

Festering Cloth, Level 3. This spell is cast on a piece of cloth or other material, not smaller than the spread of his hand from thumbtip to little finger tip, and not bigger than his height from head to foot. It imbues the material with a disease, which is passed on to anybody who touches the cloth with their naked flesh, including the spellcaster himself; this condition is permanent. Any disease may be used, but by default the affliction is as follows: after 16 hours the victim begins to lose 1 hp and 1 point of STR and CON per hour until any of those scores reaches 0, at which point he or she dies.

Lucid Adoration, Level 1. This spell acts as Charm Person, but the victim retains the knowledge that he or she has been charmed and is entirely lucid for the duration of the spell. He or she must act as though charmed (obeying commands within reason, protecting the caster, etc.) but is able while doing so to complain, plot revenge, shout warnings to others, and so on.

Jullavierre's World Signal, Level 6. This spell allows the caster to send a signal, in the form of a bright light in the sky showing a single sigil or letter, which is seen or heard everywhere in the world. It lasts for 1 minute per caster level.

Ubara's Slate Ally, Level 6. This spell conjures a stone golem formed from slate, consisting of a large flat slab of stone with arms and legs formed from smaller slats of slate. It has the stats and abilities of a stone golem, but it suffers double damage from bludgeoning attacks and is immune to edged weapons. It is thin enough to pass through gaps 6" wide, and can set itself up as a wall, 8' high and 4' wide, which cannot be pushed over and which protects anyone immediately behind it from missile weapons, magic spells including fireball blasts, and so on.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Going is easy but returning is not

A lot of pedestrian crossings in Japanese cities play the haunting children's lullaby "Toryanse" to let you know when to cross - something which says more about East-West cultural differences than I think any words could. This is the tune itself; you can find other more "produced" versions on YouTube, but this version is more appropriate for the context in which the tune is generally heard (other than pedestrian crossings).

The words are in an old form of Japanese, from the Edo period, and aren't easily translated. You get different versions in different places. It is most often represented as a call-and-response dialogue, but it always isn't quite clear which of the parties is saying which line, and one of the words used, kowai, which in modern Japanese almost always means "frightening", could also just mean "difficult" in those days, and that seems to fit better. These are a few of my alternative translations depending on how you interpret the order of the speakers, with A the first speaker and B the second:

Alternative 1
Alternative 2
Alternative 3
通りゃんせ 通りゃんせ
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
ここはどこの 細道じゃ
B: What is this narrow path?
B: What is this narrow path?
B: What is this narrow path?
天神さまの 細道じゃ
A: This is the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine
A: This is the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine
B: Is this the narrow path that leads to the Tenjin shrine?
ちっと通して 下しゃんせ
B: Would you please let me pass?
B: Would you please let me pass?
B: Would you please let me pass?
御用のないもの 通しゃせぬ
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
A: Those without good reason may not pass through
この子の七つの 御祝いに
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
B: To celebrate this child’s 7th birthday
御札を納めに 参ります
B: I have come with an offering
B: I have come with an offering
B: I have come with an offering
行きはよいよい 帰りはこわい
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
A: Going in is easy, but returning is not
B: Even so, please let me pass
A: But even so
A: But even so
通りゃんせ 通りゃんせ
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through
A: You may pass through, you may pass through

(If you prefer a "creepier" version, you would translate the third to last line as "going in is easy, but returning is frightening [or scary]", which in my view makes it a bit melodramatic. It also must be said that on weblio, the meaning of the line in question is described as "going in is easy, but returning is not". You can also mix and match between the three alternatives if you think the final three lines are ABA rather than AAA.)

Interpretations vary, but the wikipedia article is I guess the mainstream view; it suggests the exchange is between a guard and somebody wanting to visit the shrine to celebrate their child reaching 7 years of age (3rd, 5th and 7th birthdays are special occasions for kids in Japan for Buddhist-associated reasons). According to weblio, there's no clear reason by returning is not easy, or "scary" - it could be because one must use all one's energy climbing uphill on the way and has no energy for the return route (or, I suppose, vice versa - maybe the way is downhill and the way back requires an upward climb).

But to me there is something more to it than that, especially in the context of the melody, which seems to make the journey fraught with underlying tension - "going in is easy, but returning is not" - and hints at much darker themes. Death seems to be lurking somewhere - or, possibly, the past: you can go on (if you have a good reason!) but going back is hard.

I love stuff like this. In particular, I love the idea of guards with ambiguous requirements and warnings. Fighting Fantasy books in particular were full of that sort of thing: it works well in the context of a gamebook where the guard can't be questioned, but can only issue dire warnings which you must needs ignore.

I also like the idea of a path which is easy to follow in one direction, but hard in another. It's difficult to operationalise in game terms (other than by making encounters much more difficult if going in one direction rather than another, which is a bit of a boring way of doing it); perhaps something as simple as section of dungeon being much bigger physically when travelling one way than another, resulting in many more random encounters?

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Diversity of Language

If you are interested in thinking about fantasy languages - at the level of sound rather than the technicalities of grammar, vocabulary and so on - you could do worse than subscribe to WikiTongues on YouTube, a collection of videos of people speaking various languages. Some of them may not be native speakers, or entirely proficient, but most seem authentic.

Just for fun, here are examples from around the British Isles. First, Welsh:

Second, Scottish Gaelic:

Third, Manx:

And now here are some from further afield. First, Mingrelian:

Now Mapudungun:

And Tibetan: